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Concordia University Commissioned an Asbestos Report Written by a Former Asbestos PR Consultant

The university has pulled the paper from the website, but critics say it shows big business has taken over academics.

by Brigitte Noël
Sep 1 2015, 9:00pm

The amphitheatre at Concordia named for asbestos entrepreneur and Concordia donor Baljit Chadha. Photo by Brigitte Noël

A group of doctors, scientists, and human rights activists say a report on the asbestos industry, commissioned and published by Concordia University, shows big business has made its way into the classroom.

In July 2015, a report on public relations lessons learned from efforts to expand Quebec's asbestos industry—commissioned by Concordia's Luc-Beauregard Centre of Excellence in Communications Research—was posted on the university's website.

Written by Concordia lecturer and long-time communications professional John Aylen, the 102-page report outlined what went "wrong" when a consortium of Quebec developers tried to resurrect the contentious Jeffrey Mine in the town of Asbestos, QC. Aylen wrote that the project, which was ultimately unsuccessful, had failed because the project's opponents had, among other things, "traded freely on the emotional value of showcasing individuals and families who were apparent victims of asbestos disease."

"Facts cannot trump feelings in controlling public opinion," he concluded, in advice written for public relations students and professionals working with controversial industries.

However, critics of the report say the document is deeply flawed, filled with erroneous scientific claims and personal attacks. But the most egregious issue, they point out, is that Aylen fails to mention his close ties to the asbestos industry.

Aylen, Lessons From the Quebec Asbestos Industry, 2015 (1) by TannaraYelland

"Aylen does not disclose that he was a paid PR consultant for this exact project he is writing about," says Kathleen Ruff, founder of human rights group RightOnCanada.ca and one of the report's lead critics.

"He was an alter ego for them, paid to lobby on their behalf," she told VICE. "This is not disclosed."

Also missing from the report is the fact that Aylen's former employer, Montreal businessman-cum-asbestos entrepreneur Baljit Chadha, has donated thousands of dollars to Concordia University, where he is also an emeritus member of the board of governors.

Officials confirm the document has since been taken off Concordia's website, pending a review.

The Jeffrey Mine, located in southeastern Quebec, had been operating since the 1800s and was at one point considered one of the world's biggest asbestos mines. But by the 1990s, as concerns about the mineral's safety became increasingly substantiated—linking the fibrous substance to lung disease and cancers like mesothelioma—countries rushed to limit its use and importation. Canada, while banning it at home, continued to market the substance overseas.

In a 2011 Financial Post profile, Baljit Chadha was dubbed "the new face of the asbestos industry in Canada." Chadha's trading company, Balcorp Ltd., sold the substance to India for years before spearheading the Jeffrey Mine expansion.

As the Jeffrey Mine open-pit structure started to run dry, a consortium led by Balcorp Ltd. (for which Aylen acted as a spokesperson) sought funding to take the work underground in order to seek more of the mineral, a venture that required a $58-million loan [$44 million USD]. The project was unpopular and failed to secure private financing, so the provincial Liberals agreed to foot the bill in the summer of 2012. When the Parti Québecois came to power later that fall, they promptly cancelled the mine expansion.

For many, this change of heart was unsurprising: Canada had been facing massive international pressure to stop extracting and selling asbestos, and had been vehemently criticized for opposing the United Nations' efforts to list chrysotile asbestos (the specific kind of mineral extracted in Quebec) as a dangerous substance. After the failure to relaunch Jeffrey Mine, the government finally scaled down its opposition, though Canada remains far from supportive of the Rotterdam Convention list of hazardous materials.

Ruff points to a plethora of research that highlights the danger of asbestos, including the World Health Organization's outright condemnation of the mineral. "(It) causes deadly diseases, and the only way to stop people from harm is to stop using it," she says. "Canada has been playing a lead and very destructive role."

Yet in his report, Aylen writes that "numerous scientific studies have been published in recent years that support the assertion that exposure to chrysotile that respects the current occupational standard in Quebec (1 fiber/cc) is safe; the risk to health at this level of exposure is so low as to not be measurable."

Among the reasons for the mining project's failures, Aylen writes that the opponents were wrong on their interpretation of the science. "They invoked (inaccurately) the positions of the WHO and the UN," he writes, adding that the project's defeat was caused by the opponent's "highly emotional campaign," a tactic he says gave no consideration to the "facts."

The WHO report, however, states that since "there is no evidence for a threshold for the carcinogenic effect of asbestos, including chrysotile, and that increased cancer risks have been observed in populations exposed to very low levels (5, 7), the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop using all types of asbestos."

Ruff, who has spoken out against the effects of asbestos for nearly a decade, is personally named in the report as the "principal activist opposing the venture."

"Her tactics included unsubstantiated opinions masquerading as fact, efforts discrediting science supporting safe use, personal attacks by email and in the media pre-emptively holding the moral high ground in the public debate," Aylen writes of Ruff.

Ruff questions Aylen's motives. She points to the acknowledgement section of the report, where the author thanks a man named Barry Smith.

"I would like to acknowledge the gracious and generous contributions of Mr. Barry Smith (not his real name) who wholeheartedly endorsed and supported this exercise in a true spirit of constructive analysis and forward sightedness," Aylen wrote. A few pages later, "Smith" is described as the leader of the consortium trying to purchase the mine, undeniable proof of his identity as Baljit Chadha.

"It seemed extremely odd," Ruff says of the fake name. "What did he have to hide? He didn't put fake names for us, he named us. Why would he play games like that?"

Aylen also thanked Guy Versailles, a former Balcorp spokesperson who is now a member of the Luc-Beauregard Centre's advisory board. "I am also grateful for the dedicated assistance of Mr.Guy Versailles, who reviewed the document and provided constructive input," Aylen wrote.

Ruff speculates that donations made by Chadha could have played a role in shaping the report. Chadha's Wikipedia page states that he has "sat on the Board of Governors of Concordia University since 2002 having donated thousands of dollars to the institution."

She points out that one of the university's amphitheaters is named after the businessman. "Normally that means someone has made a big donation. He clearly has a lot of influence there."

Chris Mota, Concordia's director of media relations, told VICE the university does not disclose donor information, adding that "donations to the university have no impact on academic freedom, course content, etc." He added that the university even declines donations "if we feel the donor's wishes don't coincide with our academic mission or needs."

While Mota indicates the university will soon be conducting a review of the report, Ruff and the group say they have concerns over who will be conducting it and would like to be included.

"The investigation should be independent, transparent and carried out by people who have no conflict of interest," she says. "They have not answered our request."

Robin Vose, the president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, says the organization supports Aylen's "academic freedom to research and publish whatever he wants and making whatever collaborations he wants," he says, but with a caveat. "As a rule, the universities have to make sure that those collaborations never inappropriately influence researchers."

"The project itself sounds like a perfectly legitimate project to understand how PR works, and how it works in the field of controversial projects," he says. However, he adds that the perceived conflict of interest is symptomatic of a broader issue.

Vose further explains that federal funding for universities in Canada has gone down more than six percent in the past seven years, leaving institutions more reliant on private donations and consequently more exposed to allegations of bias or corporate interference. Avoiding this, he says, would be a lot easier if universities had public funding. "That's the root of the problem."

When contacted, Aylen directed VICE's inquiries to the university's communications department. Concordia did not confirm whether he would be returning to the classroom this fall.

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